How do you know that? Why do you think that? How does that make any sense?
I was a highly opinionated child with a lot of crazy ideas. But my Dad was patient. He never told me “that’s crazy” or “that’s wrong”. Instead he usually greeted my pronouncements with some variation of those three questions and often he strung them together into a dialogue. I’d answer and he’d ask the next question or repeat the first. At some age, I don’t really recall when, I began to internalize those questions and the resulting dialogue. When I got to college I had the chance to study rhetoric and semantics. I added my own questions to his three.
Why these words? What do they want me to think/feel/do? Why are they saying this?
I guess these questions are what the education folks call “critical thinking”. What I know is that we’d be better off asking these questions when we read. I’ve been reading lots of stories, tweets, and posts about “fake news” websites and the need for improved “fact-checking” and digital literacy. But I’m not too sure we’re getting at the problem. The problem is a lack of critical thinking as my Dad would have approached. Instead, people seem to be emphasizing the following questions:
What are the “facts”? Is this true? Is this a “legitimate” news site? Should I trust this source? How do we filter out the “fake news”?
These are the wrong questions. They won’t lead to critical insight. They’ll only lead to more deception and propaganda. I see two problems with these questions people are posing.
First, everything cannot be reduced to some “fact” status as either true or not true. I don’t want to get into some deep philosophical exploration of the nature of truth, I just want to point out any statement of the future or intentions is inherently speculative and cannot be “fact checked”. All statements of policy intents are statements about the future. A person can lie about their intents (and even lie to themselves) but it cannot be “fact checked”. The lie can only be challenged by building an argument of reasoning why the person should not be believed. Further the class of things that can be called “facts” includes only objectively verifiable things. Yet subjective things matter too. Feelings, preferences, and perceptions cannot be “fact-checked”. Culture is made of more feelings and perceptions than it is facts.
I could elaborate on the inadequacy of “fact-checking” and likely will in some future post, but right now I want to focus on the second issue: the problems involved in focusing on “legitimate” vs. “fake” news sites. This isn’t really critical thinking at all. It’s a reliance on authority as the sole arbiter of truth. It’s actually the approach that says we don’t have to engage the actual message itself and critically think about it. This approach advises to divide the world into approved “legitimate” news sources, presumably nice establishment entities such as the New York Times, or Washington Post, or ABC/CBS/NBC/CNN. I suppose whether Fox News qualifies depends on whether you’re Republican or Democrat. But other sources are deemed suspicious and likely to be “fake”. Folks, the problem isn’t whether the news publisher is “legit” it’s whether the news story itself is “legit”. Big difference.
Let me use a story that has made the rounds in the last day or so. The Washington Post published a story with the headline:
Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say
Almost instantly, the Twittersphere and blogosphere lit up with mostly unhappy Clinton supporters claiming this is the biggest news story and everybody is missing it. And yet, the Washington Post site fails on all my Dad’s questions. There’s nothing really there. And when I ask myself about their semantics and ask myself “cui bono?” from this piece, I find it seriously lacking. I don’t have to take it apart for you because Fortune magazine and journalist Caitlin Johnstone, quoting Glenn Greenwald, did it for me. You can read for yourself:
(update 28Nov2016: An even better critical thinking take-down of the Washington Post article from William Black at New Economic Perspectives: The Washington Post’s Propaganda About Russian Propaganda )
I’ll reiterate what I’ve said on Twitter and FB. We shouldn’t be calling out “fake news” sites. We shouldn’t even be calling out “fake news”. We should call it what it is: propaganda. Calling it “fake news” will mislead us and get all of us into trouble. It leads to binary thinking: is this “true” or “fake”? The problem is propaganda. The most effective propaganda is neither true nor fake. It contains at least some elements of truth or facts but uses rhetorical sleight of hand to get you to believe something you really don’t know. We used to call it spin, but I guess that’s gone out of style.
Let’s remember “legitimate” news sources can and often do deliver propaganda, “fake news” if you will, just as easily and even more effectively than any “fake news sites” spun up by some troll teenager in his basement.
I’m old enough to remember that the legitimate news sources delivered the news to us about Gulf of Tonkin incident and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and anthrax. Those were propaganda, “fake news”, spun up to work the nation up to war. They worked unfortunately and hundreds of thousands died. Indeed, the march to war is always accompanied by the whole hearted support of the merchants of death and the “legitimate” news sources.
Crying “Russians! Russians!” is dangerous. Accepting such stories uncritically is even more dangerous. It allows people, especially establishment Democrats, to ignore their own culpability in creating this disaster of an impending Trump presidency. But even more dangerous is it feeds the war machine. We have a populace that wants to look elsewhere to blame their problems: Republicans want to blame Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants. Now Democrats are crying to blame Russians. That way lies madness. Let’s remember, when it comes to world wars, it’s three strikes and we’re all out.
So I humbly ask that we all ask ourselves as we read these days: Who’s zoomin’ here?
hat tip to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin for the inspiration for the post. Enjoy: